Summer Thesis Research in Natchez, Mississippi
Summer means thesis research for second year fellows, and my thesis research took me to the Gulf South in July to study antebellum cabinetmaker Robert Stewart of Natchez, Mississippi.
Examining a Stewart ledger at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library
First, I examined Stewart’s extensive account books at Tulane University and Louisiana State University.
From these archival sources, I learned about labor in Stewart’s workshop, his clients, sources for his materials, and the evolution of his business over decades. These gave me a strong documentary basis for interpreting Stewart’s surviving furniture.
Next, I spent three weeks working closely with Mimi Miller, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation. There I continued to examine archival sources, like court and probate records, which shed light on the material world of antebellum Natchez. Most excitingly, however, I was able to put my Winterthur connoisseurship training to good use examining surviving furniture in both public and private collections.
This tool kit belonged to Robert Hill Stewart, Robert Stewart’s son, who worked for his father and took over the business by 1861. An inventory of tools is pinned inside the lid.
Fieldwork is central to the Winterthur Program’s training, and it proved critical to my thesis research as well. Being on-site allowed me to seek out surviving pieces of furniture that I could match to records in Stewart’s account books. Starting with an entry in a ledger, I sought to identify the client’s home, and then, with Mimi Miller’s expert guidance, investigated whether or not the home was likely to have antebellum furniture that could be tracked down. Because so much of Natchez’s material history survives, I found this method surprisingly successful; it led me to a dining table, a set of twelve chairs, a hallstand, and other pieces of furniture that with further research may be attributed to Stewart.
Working in Natchez also allowed me to develop a stronger visual context for the decorative arts of the city during the antebellum period through visits to some of Natchez’s many antebellum homes with original furnishings. Seeing the homes of Robert Stewart’s clients—who spanned social, economic, and racial boundaries—allowed me to contextualize the role furniture from Stewart’s shop played in the domestic spaces of the town. Understanding who turned to Stewart for furniture and when, as well as when they looked to big-name makers in Northeastern manufacturing centers, added an important dimension to my understanding.
My trip was more than worth all the heat and humidity, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in such exciting work in the Gulf South. As the fall semester commences, I look forward to analyzing the mountain of data gathered this summer to better understand Robert Stewart and his cabinetmaking shop, and his significance to this complex and fascinating region.
Stanton Hall, home to one of Stewart’s wealthiest clients, Frederick Stanton, demonstrates the extreme wealth present in Natchez by 1850.
By Candice Candeto, WPAMC Class of 2018